A resume tells you that a candidate has the required skills and background for the open role. A cover letter confirms their interest in the position.
An interview, then, is a critical step for evaluating a candidate's critical thinking, decision-making, and interpersonal skills. Essentially, it's an opportunity to dig deeper into an interviewee's potential, and the STAR interview method is your shovel.
The STAR method stands for Situation, Task, Action, Results. With this behavioral interview approach, employers can find out how candidates would act in certain situations on the job based on their past experiences. Candidates' answers would describe a situation, the required task, the candidate's chosen action, and the result of that action.
To evaluate each candidate you interview fairly, you'll want to ask questions to understand how they'll perform in the role. The STAR method is a behavioral interviewing technique that can be used to gain those insights.
Interview questions using the STAR method urge candidates to tell a linear story. From this story, interviewers can identify a sense of judgment in the candidate that might not be visible in more generic skill-based interview questions.
The STAR Answer Format
Here's a bit more detail on how "STAR" answers should sound when listening to a candidate's answer.
Answers to STAR interview questions should first paint a picture of a problem or dilemma that the candidate ultimately solved. Interviewees can explain how the situation came about and who else was involved.
The "Task" component of a STAR answer elaborates on the candidate's role in this situation. What was he/she tasked with doing in response to the situation? Who identified this task? What was the desired result of carrying out this task?
The "Action" in a STAR answer reveals how the candidate actually approached that task, and the steps they took to solve the problem introduced in the "Situation" stage of their answer.
The "Results" included in a STAR answer should explain the outcome of the candidate's actions. Was the original problem solved? How did the candidate's results differ from the expected results?
For instance, rather than asking, "What is your greatest weakness?", a good STAR question might be, "Give an example of a goal you didn't meet and how you handled it."
Essentially, the STAR method requires a candidate to explain a prior work situation anecdotally, provide details regarding the tasks required, what actions the candidate took to achieve those tasks, and the results of the situation.
When used properly, the STAR method is extremely effective. Here, we've created a comprehensive guide on how to use the STAR method, so you can learn how to prepare to interview a candidate, and check out examples of questions to identify your best candidate.
Here's a list of 10 popular STAR interview questions. Ideally, you'll tailor them for the specific role and candidate, but you can use these for initial inspiration.
Typical STAR Interview Questions
Sense of Judgment
These questions can help you reveal a candidate's quality of judgment and how they make decisions under complicated circumstances.
- Tell me about a difficult decision you've made in the last year.
- Describe a time when you set your sights too high (or too low).
- Tell me about a time when you had multiple important projects to finish and how you prioritized them.
- Can you recall an experience where you received conflicting pieces of feedback on a project? How did you address this feedback?
- Describe a time when a close colleague caused a project to suffer or fail, and how you explained this failure to the project manager.
These questions can help you reveal how well a candidate performs under various types of pressure.
- Describe a decision you made that was unpopular and how you handled implementing it.
- Describe a stressful situation at work and how you handled it.
- Tell me about a recent situation in which you had to deal with a very upset customer.
- Describe a situation where you disagreed with a superior and how this disagreement was settled.
- Tell me about a time you had to learn something you weren't familiar with very quickly.
These questions can help you reveal a candidate's leadership potential, confidence, and willingness to take the initiative on projects when they have little or no direction to start with.
- You indicated on your resume that leadership is one of your strengths. Describe an experience in which you used your leadership abilities.
- Tell me about a time when you delegated a project to others effectively.
- Can you recall a time where you had to give negative feedback to a colleague. How did you express this feedback?
- Give me an example of when you showed initiative and took the lead.
- Describe a time you had a direct report or managed a team that was being recruited to work on other projects without your consent.
These questions can reveal how much self-awareness a candidate has of his or her strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses.
- Tell me about a time you were able to successfully deal with a coworker who might not have personally liked you (or vice versa).
- Give me an example of a time when you tried to accomplish something and failed.
- Tell me about a time you were reprimanded or criticized for your performance.
- Tell me about a project that wasn't going to meet its deadline and how you minimized or confronted the consequences.
- Tell me about a time you felt you weren't being listened to, and how you made you presence or opinion known to your colleagues.
How to Format Your Interview for the STAR Approach
To successfully incorporate STAR questions into your interview strategy, there are four steps you'll need to take.
1. Make a list of role-specific STAR questions.
Start by making a list of questions applicable to the specific candidate's prior experiences, skills, and characteristics. The list of questions above can serve as general starting points, but to really delve into a candidate's specific background in relation to the role, you'll want to tailor your questions appropriately.
For instance, "Tell me about a time when you delegated a project effectively" is vague, and could lead the candidate to describing a work situation from five years ago, when really, you wanted to hear about a data-related marketing project from her last position alone. Make yourself clear, and reference a specific resume item: "I'd like to hear more about your experience as a Sr. Digital Marketing Manager at Company X. Could you tell me specifically about a time in that role when you delegated a project effectively?"
If you're using the STAR interview method, ask questions that require situation-specific answers. For instance, if you want to know about a candidate's flexibility, you might ask, “Describe a time when you put your needs aside to help a co-worker understand a task. How did you assist them?”
2. Tell candidates what you're looking for in their answers.
Not everyone agrees this step is necessary: some recruiters prefer not to explain that they're looking for situation-specific answers, to see how the candidate deals with answering the question however she wants. Some hiring managers see the benefit of being vague — at the very least, you'll likely get a candid answer from your candidate.
But other experts, like Todd Lombardi, a college relations specialist at Kulicke & Soffa Industries Inc., believes it's important to explain what he's looking for before asking a candidate any behavioral interview questions.
When Lombardi starts a behavioral interview, he details the process, telling the candidate he's looking for specific examples, names of people, dates, and outcomes.
Lombardi speaks with candidates about projects they've worked on, how their role has evolved, how they've handled deadlines or unexpected situations, and how they've coped with adversity. He asks these questions because, "Everyone's got that kind of experience."
If you don't explain what you're looking for upfront, you risk receiving an incomplete answer or confusing the candidate. If the candidate answers insufficiently, perhaps you want to offer her an opportunity to modify her answer. Say: "I'm looking for details about a specific example — you've explained the situation and tasks required, but I'd still like to know what steps you took to complete the tasks, and what results you got from the project."
3. Know what you're looking for.
STAR interview questions are particularly helpful for determining major characteristics in your candidate, or receiving more context for potential issues you see with their resume.
For instance, let's say you ask, "Give me a specific example of a time when you sold your supervisor or professor on an idea or concept. How did you convince them? What was the result?"
When you ask STAR questions, you should know what you're looking for in a candidate's answer. In the question above, it shouldn't matter too much what the candidate's idea was — instead, you're looking for the candidate to display a high level of assertiveness, confidence, and good decision-making skills.
Regardless of how the candidate answers, take note of how the candidate demonstrated — or didn't demonstrate — those characteristics. They're more important than how the situation played out.
If you're not sure what you're looking for when you ask a candidate STAR questions, consider what's missing from the candidate's resume. If the candidate's resume reflects skills tied to analytics, but you're fearful the candidate lacks the creativity necessary for the role, ask a question regarding innovation. When the candidate answers, take note of whether she mentions original ideas she offered. Essentially, work backward — consider what information you want from the candidate, and then figure out how to phrase it in an appropriate behavioral interview question.
Sara DeBrule, our Global Marketing Recruitment Team Lead at HubSpot, recommends working to identify "the candidates who have taken the time to understand the business challenge, and are able to position themselves as the solution."
DeBrule explains, "It's obvious when a candidate has read up on the STAR interviewing technique because they are able to tell a linear story about the ways they are able to successfully impact [the company] in the desired way for the role."
Even if a candidate hasn't had the exact experience necessary for the role, the applicant should still be able to draw parallels between past experiences and how those experiences would translate to future success in the role. Ultimately, DeBrule says she aims to uncover whether a candidate focuses on results, seeks out industry knowledge and trends, has influence over her coworkers in order to work as a team player, and pursues new opportunities for growth.
If you're stuck on what constitutes a good answer to a behavioral interview question, check out our behavioral interview article to get some ideas.
4. Remain open-minded.
Each candidate has completely different life and work experiences, all of which contribute to unique and sometimes unexpected answers to STAR behavioral interview questions.
It's important to remain open-minded. You want to build a team with diverse employees, each of whom bring new and different ideas and past experiences to the table — if a candidate answers differently than you'd expected them to, it doesn't mean they've answered wrong.
"At the end of the day, I'm trying to understand a candidate's ability to tell their story of impact — how they've impacted businesses in the past, and how they're going to impact [our company] in the future," Sara DeBrule explains.
Remember, these STAR interview method questions should be used sparingly and wisely — asking ten in a row will only confuse you and your candidate. Instead, you should mix behavioral interview questions with more standard interview questions, especially during a first-round interview. Allow a candidate to warm up with a few standard questions, before diving into any STAR behavioral ones.
Use some of these STAR interview questions in your next interview to ensure you're providing as many opportunities as possible for the candidate to demonstrate how she can help your company succeed. Hopefully, behavioral interview tactics will help you create candid, insightful, and useful conversations with job applicants.